Jennifer Lopez sparks controversy with show for Turkmenistan president

American singer's publicist says she would not have sung for leader if she had known about country's human rights record.

The US pop star Jennifer Lopezhas added to her long history of performing for unsavoury characters with a birthday concert for the president of Turkmenistan – a man accused of committing widespread human rights abuses while ruling over the hermit nation.

Human rights activists criticised the star, also known as JLo, for singing at the flashy southern resort of Avaza on Saturday night to mark the 56th birthday of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, attended by a select group of officials, diplomats and executives.

With a shout of "Turkmenistan!", Lopez took to the stage to sing and dance her way through her biggest hits. At the end, she changed from a skimpy white dress into a long, traditional Turkmen outfit to sing Happy Birthday, Mr President.

"It was our pleasure," Lopez said from the stage. "And we wish you the very happiest birthday."

Berdymukhamedov presides over a personality cult in the oil and gas-rich central Asian nation and brooks no dissent. Human Rights Watch calls Turkmenistan "one of the world's most repressive countries".

A YouTube clip of the Jennifer Lopez concert.

Lopez is one of the highest-profile western pop stars to play private concerts around the former Soviet Union in exchange for huge fees. She is believed to be the first major star to visit and perform in Turkmenistan, a nation whose people live in poverty and are allowed little contact with the outside world.

The China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), China's state-run oil and gas company, said it had organised Lopez's trip to Turkmenistan, according to AFP.

Lopez's entourage appeared unaware they were heading to a country where the internet is tightly controlled. Access to social media and websites run by independent media and human rights groups is banned. "I wonder where all my Turkmenistan followers are!? Hit me up!" tweeted her choreographer JR Taylor. The tweet was later deleted as reports of Lopez's controversial performance began to spread.

Lopez's publicist released a statement on Sunday saying that had the singer been aware of the country's human rights issues, she would not have performed there. The statement said she was invited to perform for CNPC and "graciously obliged" their last-minute request to sing a birthday tune for Berdymukhamedov.

Lopez has also performed at the wedding of an Uzbek businessman in Ukraine, reportedly for $1m (£660,000), as well as for the Azeri oligarch Telman Ismailov, reportedly for $1.4m.

Before two performances in Russia last year, Lopez declined to discuss the country's human rights situation with fans during a phone-in. In response to a question about the jailed punk band Pussy Riot, she said: "I don't like to talk politics, to be quite honest."

Lopez's performance took place in the $2bn resort of Avaza, a huge luxury complex on the country's Caspian coast near the city of Turkmenbashi, named after Berdymukhamedov's predeccesor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who called himself Turkmenbashi, or "Father of all Turkmen".

Berdymukhamedov quickly squashed hopes that he would be more open than his predecessor and has merely replaced Turkmenbashi's cult of personality with his own since taking office in 2006.

Foreign energy companies regularly court the country and its eccentric president in the hope of gaining access to its gas reserves, estimated to be the world's fourth largest.